Tuesday 18 February 2014

The frontiers are shoved

Of my 20 odd hours in contact with students each week, 5 are assigned to 'project supervision'.  This is partly so that there are a few hours a week when both you and any final-year project students you own are available for consultation, and partly so that a group of them have an adult in the room as they work.  The adult is there for Health and Safety, but I also find myself fielding questions about weird results and giving unsolicited advice about what to do next and where to find the aliquotter, more pipette-tips or the back-up pot of nutrient agar.  Many of my colleagues turn those hours into productive marking of student submissions or getting some quiet time to read the scientific literature.  We are half way through the second batch of projects, so results are starting to come in.

In the middle of last week, after the storm, there were only a few students in and I was earwigging on a conversation between one of them and her supervisor.  He was clearly very pleased at the fact that some of her test-tubes had changed colour.  This is no mad-scientist metaphor but what actually happens in a lot of microbiology: things are set up so that if some particular metabolic process occurs then the test-tube or petri-dish goes pink or black or metallic green.  It's often rather pretty when the kids break open their stack of plates from the previous week's experiments.  Mais revenons nous a nos microbes.  As the impact of what he was seeing sunk in, my colleague said "I've been in this game for 30 years and this is only the second time I've discovered something useful".  That makes me one ahead of him: I've been at it for a bit longer and have had three original thoughts in my work as a scientist that proved to be a) true and b) interesting.  Two of them got published and we were scooped by another group in the most recent one. Qualified dang!, because for me it's not really about getting furthest first fastest.

I got a teensy bit frantic, and asked the five people in the room if any of them had a  camera to record The Moment.  But they all looked at me like I was a teensy bit raving. Maybe so, but I know how infrequently the creative thought is captured.  Like a well constructed play another of my colleagues bumbled in at that moment and he had a camera "of course". He was easily persuaded to snap a couple of shots of the perps looking happy and holding their parti-coloured test-tubes.  I can't tell you more about the nature of the result because I'd have to kill you and I don't know where half of you live.  This is partly because I didn't follow the full details of what the colour changed showed but mainly because it has the potential to generate significant intellectual property as well as improving the health and happiness of millions of large white people.

I was there.  Stoked!


  1. I love this blog! This story is electric.

    And I thought it couldn't get any better than a Samaritan schoolboy with a tractor.

    Or a pair of ex-lovers flying an unlovingly modified aircraft round the world.

    A thousand monkeys on Wikipedia couldn't match this output!
    Oh.. Wait a second: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_monkey_theorem

    That sounds like slight praise; sorry. I should calm down and go to sleep. But... Science! And tractors!

  2. Above comment was from The Boy. Not someone in a yurt in Khazakstan unfortunately.